Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Taking Your Part in Pleasure

Parshat Naso
2 Sivan 5771 / June 3 – 4, 2011
Bamidbar 4:21 – 7:89

Taking Your Part in Pleasure
by Laura Wolf, formerly of MH London

דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם איש או אשה כי יפלא לנדר נדר נזיר להזיר להשם

“Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: A man or woman who shall dissociate him or herself by taking a Nazarite vow of abstinence for the sake of G-d...” (Numbers 6:2)

Although Nazirs (a form Biblical asceticism) are praised for their restraint, they are still commanded to bring a sacrificial sin offering at the end of their vow which seems paradoxical. You would think that a person should be completely rewarded for partaking in less of this physical world.

In his commentary to the Torah, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin writes that there is certainly a positive aspect to being a Nazir, but that it is not for everyone. Abstaining from the pleasures that G-d intended for us to enjoy is, in a sense, sinful for the average person.

Soon we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the receiving of the Torah. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the classic halachic work Aruch Hashulchan (1829-1908), writes that the festival of Shavuot is referred to in the Torah as “atzeres,” restraint, because the Jewish people were instructed to abstain from physical indulgence prior to receiving the Torah. Surprisingly, the Talmud tells us that one should consume delicacies on Shavuot – the very same holiday whose name represents restraint from physical pleasures!

The Talmud states that one who fasts excessively is called a sinner, because he adopts a path that is contrary to what the Torah asks of us. We are not bidden to abstain from earthly pleasures altogether, for they were placed here to enhance our earthly existence and to utilize in the service of G-d. Rather, our mandate is to limit our intake of these pleasures and not to allow them to take control of us. So long as one is careful not to allow themselves to indulge and as a result compromise their physical and spiritual health, there is no reason to refrain from appreciating the abundance with which G-d has showered us. One who abstains from it altogether has confused asceticism with piety.

When we were given the Torah at Mount Sinai we were given the tools to transform the material into the spiritual. So my blessing to everyone is that we all have the strength to not be fooled and consumed by the material world and to keep our souls in the driver’s seat so that we can rise above our base nature and ego to make the world a more spiritually pure, peaceful and beautiful place.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lessons for Moishe House Leaders

Parshat Bamidbar
Bamidbar 1:1 – 4:20
24 Iyar 5771 / May 27 – 28, 2011

Lessons for Moishe House Leaders
by Dovi Kacev (dovi.kacev@gmail.com), MH San Diego

Parshat BaMidbar begins with G-d telling Moses that he and Aaron are to take a census of the Israelites as they were crossing the desert. This census is to be done by invoking the help of one leader from within each tribe to count those in that tribe. The parsha then goes on to list the tally of people by tribe, who in total numbered 603,550 without the Levites, who were tallied separately. Each tribe was assigned a position around the Tent of Meeting, in which they marched through the desert. The portion discusses the census of the Levites and the Kohanim and describes their duties in traveling with the tabernacle.

What can we, as Moishe Housekateers, learn from all of this?

Firstly, the idea that there needed to be a census shows us that every member of the community is important. Within each of our local communities, we too must be careful to acknowledge each of our community members. Also, just as Moses and Aaron were made to do, we should step back and appreciate the magnitude and vibrancy of the communities we have helped forge.

Secondly, there is also significance in the idea that the census was conducted by leaders from within each tribe. In order to truly be a community, the leaders have to not only understand the general members, they have to be a part of them. We have to be personally invested in our communities in order to help them thrive.

Finally, we get to the positions each tribe needs to take around the Tent of Meeting and the duties of the Levites and Kohanim. This teaches us that we do not gather as communities just for fun, but rather for service. We have responsibilities to ensure that the greater society functions properly. Regardless of whether we are priests or citizens, we each have a role to play and no role is more important than another.

Next time we you have an event at your home make sure that you take the time to appreciate the magnitude of the community you have helped create. Be sure to appreciate each guest as well as the immensity of the whole group. Take the time to be a member of the community as well as one of its leaders. Most importantly, help direct the community toward service to make the world a better and more functional place.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Well, Bless You Too!

Parshat Bechukotai
Vayikra 26:3 – 27:34
21 Iyar 5771 / May 20 – 21, 2011

Well, Bless You Too!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In Parshat Bechukotai we learn about the rewards and punishments for following or abandoning the laws of the Torah. The picture of G-d that this portion paints is pretty harsh. “Listen to me, or else!” I continue to wonder why G-d, THE BEING OF ULTIMATE COMPASSION, would be so hell bent on people following all of G-d’s dictates. If a system is truly based on love, it follows in my own reasoning, that every little and minute detail is not what counts; rather it’s the relationship and closeness that matters. I think we all know pretty well that closeness cannot be mandated. Love has to be nurtured and cherished in order to be maintained and expanded.

While I fully believe in the statement above, I have to be honest. My decision to begin an observant Jewish practice began, in part, when I came across a verse from this portion. Verse 26:19 states the following punishment:

I will make your heaven like iron and your land like copper.

When I read this verse about 10 years ago, I looked at the sky and at the ground and I considered how the culture that I lived in was so obsessed with precious metals. Do we still see the sky and earth anymore, or do they just exist as potential resources or problems of production? My awareness of environmental maladies (draught, famine, ozone depletion) was growing, and I began to wonder if the Biblical curse had indeed manifested.

I also looked at my personal life. I was feeling confused about my life direction and basically down about who I was and the world around me. I felt like I had tried the traditional American path of “dog eat dog” and found no peace. I decided at this point to try out the path of Torah and see how that would impact my life and the world around me.

It has been 10 years of ebb and flow Jewish practice. At times I feel more in line with Torah Judaism and at times I feel more distant. I continue to stay engaged in Jewish values and a Jewish way of being in the world. Part of my journey is a continuous refinement of how I can authentically live within the story that we call Judaism. Of course, after all the mitzvoth and prayers, the world is still obsessed with making money and there is still political unrest. The world outside of me has certainly not reached perfection, though I certainly have changed for the better.

While my first entry into Jewish practice might have been motivated by a threat and by fear, I have reached the approach of Love that I expect from G-d. We cannot start our spiritual life from the top of the mountain – with a perfect world, perfect self and perfect G-d. If this were the case, who would need spiritual engagement anyway? Religion does not make bad things disappear; however, we can change our attitude towards harsh reality through our religious involvement.

I tend to adopt the opinion that in the desert, the Jewish people were, in a way, like children. They needed a present and sometimes strict G-d to tell them what was right and good. In our own lives, we never fully outgrow this phase. There are times, especially in trying times, when it is very helpful to have an exact procedure to follow. And, just as true, as we mature, we need to take more personal ownership of our life path and be allowed to do things our own way and to even make mistakes. The curses and the blessings were probably awesome for Jews in the desert, and are probably helpful for Jews like us, though only sometimes.

Today, when I look to the heavens, I see the beauty of the clouds and the majesty of the stars. The expansive land that supports me is diverse and naturally breathtaking. May we only need to see the world as a place of blessing and never as a curse.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Limits of Profit


Parshat BeHar
Vayikra 25:1 – 26:2
10 Iyar 5771 / May 13 – 14, 2011

The Limits of Profit
Dvar Torah Parashat Be'Har
by Paul Feldman, MH Mexico City
35. If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you,
you shall support him [whether] a convert or a resident, so that he
can live with you.

36. You shall not take from him interest or increase, and you shall
fear your God, and let your brother live with you.

לה. וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ
גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ:


לו. אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ
וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ:

Profit is the consequence and purpose of human enterprise. It can be obtained in either of two ways. People can either create wealth in a society or take it away from it. In this way, profit in itself is fundamentally neutral, in a moral sense. However, the means through which it is obtained are not.

I would like to focus primarily on this passage because I believe it possess a strong message, which I think is of great relevance in current times, and because it explicitly places a limit in the means
that man can employ to become wealthy. Such a passage does not only have a prohibition against usury which has been most commonly cited, but I also believe it has a much deeper meaning. It is a direct limit on how much one person can profit on another's misery, and quite clearly that limit is zero. That means we are compelled to help each other in times of need and not to profit from these actions. Although we can seek retribution/reimbursement, we may not collect gains from helping somebody in times of need. Even further, Jews are compelled to this action through fear of Adona-i, which would make it seem like there is an implicit threat and/or punishment from deviating from helping those in a state of need.


23. The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to
Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me.

כג.
וְהָאָרֶץ לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת כִּי לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי גֵרִים
וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי:

Additionally, this Parasha establishes ownership over the land and the fruit it bears. It belongs to Hashem and is only temporarily placed in our care. It is only a lease given to us so we can sustain ourselves, but there is a boundary of how much we can exploit it, shmittah. And even though many scholars claim the exact shmittah only pertains to Israel's land the last verse shows that there is another shmittah in effect, one which limits humans from destroying that which is not theirs. In effect, the parasha states that nothing can be alienated in perpetuity. This is to the extent that yovel, the 50th year or jubilee year, is one in which land is reverted to their original owner. Therefore also placing a limit on the inequity allowed.